The Frogs
October 9, 2021 5:12 AM   Subscribe

Stephen Sondheim was riding high on a wave of his own creation. After the artistic success of Company, Follies, and A Little Night Music, he chose as a follow-up to reunite with Burt Shevelove, with whom he had visited Ancient Rome, this time Ancient Greece. 1974's The Frogs was "freely adapted" from Aristophanes, ran for a week, and was staged in the Yale Swimming Pool [1h30m audio audience recording, acoustics what you'd expect], which is why you've probably never heard of it. Here's Nathan Lane and Brian Stokes Mitchell from 2001, recording the original score, with attaching dialogue and material to sketch out the plot. [Enjoy the bonus Evening Primrose songs (with NPH!)]

This show is a great example of Sondheim thinking about an idea, and then running with it. In this case, "greek chorus". Sondheim hasn't gifted us with a lot of ensemble choral works, but here's a treasure trove: Traveling Music, The Frogs, Evoe, It's Only A Play, Evoe For The Dead, Invocation To The Muses, The Sound Of Poets... There is a lot to love here (and lot of really difficult music!). [Ed. note: I had heard none of this before embarking on this series.]

I feel like there's some pastiche of things going on here that I don't recognize, but most certainly Evoe FEELS to me like something at least inspired by Hair. But things like The Frogs sound like 100% Sondheim to me.

So, how did Nathan Lane come to record this some 25+ years after it's brief first life? Lane found a copy of the libretto in a used bookstore and had mulled about it for years. Sondheim's 70th birthday required unusual measures, and Lane staged a concert performance, and... Playbill can round out the story.

But 2001 turned into post-9/11 and Lane was inspired to update and "even more freely" expand the play and its message that the arts can save humanity in a time of war, and move it to Broadway [Playbill]. Sondheim composed new songs, rearranged old songs, some were discarded entirely. The 2004 Broadway Production [audience recording, 2h4m] ran for 32 previews and 92 performances. UPI reviewed the show here.

That bootleg is immensely dissatisfying. Here's a few tastes of pro-filmed bits [8m18s] (probably for news station release), for a better view.

The cast album for the Broadway album isn't available in a playlist, but that means I get to link each track and comment!

Opening Fanfare
Invocation And Instructions To The Audience
dialogue: It Is Time We Start Our Journey
I Love To Travel [retains the core of the original, but...]
Dress Big [new song by Herakles, spoken scene in original]
I Love To Travel (Reprise)
All Aboard [new song by Charon]
dialogue: On The River Styx
Ariadne [new song]
The Frogs [a worthy expansion on the original]
Hymn To Dionysus [Evoe in the original, feels even more like Hair here, only with more Nathan Lane]
Hades [another new song]
It's Only A Play [keeps to its center even with changes]
Shaw [new song]
dialogue: The Contest [Saint Joan's speech at the stake, written by Shaw]
Fear No More [Sondheim's setting of Shakespeare's sonnet from Cymbaline, only one of two times Sondheim has used others' words.]
All Aboard (reprise) [reprise of a new song]
Hymn To Dionysus (reprise) [The Sound Of Poets in the original, revised]
Final Instructions To The Audience [new song]

[Ed. note: Sadly discarded is Invocation To The Muses, with its lovely a cappella choral chords.]

I found these two podcast episodes to be informative about this show. Putting It Together The Frogs Act 1 (with Jonathan Chisholm) [1h14m], and The Frogs Act 2 (with Justin Harvard) [1h9m].

There were performances of the original before Lane's recreation. Here is a bit from a performance in 1983 at the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles. [35m]

Creating the Outsider’s Political Identity: Nathan Lane’s Dionysus is an academic paper about the play. Worthwhile reading, if you've gotten this far.

But what of the source text? An english translation of The Frogs, or perhaps a dual-language in-line translation [PDF link]. The Warwick Classics Society production of The Frogs. [1h15m] Or the Cambridge Greek Play production (with English subtitles) [54m].

And finally, Sondheim wasn't the only person to turn The Frogs into a musical: The Frogs by Aristophanes [1h23m], with Music by Matthew McCann and Georgia Kokkinou.
posted by hippybear (11 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
posted by sammyo at 5:16 AM on October 9

Excellent post! Thank you!!
posted by Silvery Fish at 5:39 AM on October 9

posted by The otter lady at 8:55 AM on October 9 [5 favorites]

YAY my favorite!

As a Classicist, I have 100% heard of this - in fact, I play the Frog chorus from this for my students when we read Phaedrus' fable of the "Frogs Looking for a King." I am so delighted that Nathan Lane's* enthusiasm made this more available for those who were not able to be at the performance at the Yale Swimming Pool (with Meryl Streep!). It's such a great mix of the original Aristophanes (brekekekek! KO-AX!) and contemporary updates.

*The kids always know him from The Lion King, so there's immediate buy-in! Which is good, because otherwise, it's quite a long connection to make from Phaedrus --> Aristophanes --> Sondheim! And generally, they enjoy it, which always pleases me.

Thank you for all the great links!
posted by lysimache at 12:21 PM on October 9 [2 favorites]

I did not know about this, and it is amazing.
posted by snowmentality at 5:08 PM on October 9

PS: The full original Broadway cast recording is on Apple Music and on Spotify, if you would like to stream it in a non-YouTube format.
posted by snowmentality at 5:10 PM on October 9

This was when I'd become obsessed with Sondheim, as mentioned in the Night Music thread. So, I remember reading of this, but don't think I've ever listened to the whole score. Kind of a trip to look at the Yale program, and see the chorus, which included Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver and Miss Streep.
posted by NorthernLite at 9:31 PM on October 9

Thanks for this. The Pegasus Players in Chicago staged a production in the Truman College pool in 1988 (Chicago Tribune review). I went as a fan of spectacle, and left with the "Hymn to Dionysus" melody as a earworm I've carried ever since. I loved the pool setting, but it made for problematic acoustics. Perhaps future productions could mitigate this by staging it in an outdoor pool?
posted by kgander at 8:02 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]

Perhaps future productions could mitigate this by staging it in an outdoor pool?

The second episode of the podcast linked in the FPP includes an account of an attempt to stage it in an outdoor pool.

Suffice it to say, uncontained wind currents make stationing the boat in a specific spot in the water nearly impossible.

The 2004 Broadway production uses a Hamilton-like donut-revolve, with a moving ring and a stationary center. It seems to be pretty effective, but is definitely not on water.
posted by hippybear at 8:12 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]

Kind of a trip to look at the Yale program, and see the chorus, which included Christopher Durang, Sigourney Weaver and Miss Streep.

Also Robert Picardo, best known as the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 6:31 AM on October 11

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